Manage Your Organization as a Portfolio of Learning Curves

Use this approach for talent development, succession planning, and team configuration.

by Whitney Johnson 

Nearly a decade ago I realized that the S Curve could be a powerful career-management tool.  Popularized by Everett M. Rogers, who used it to show how new ideas and technologies spread, it  also describes the trajectory that people move along as they develop competence in a new domain of  expertise. I call it the S Curve of Learning. Growth is slow and effortful at the outset, known as the  launch point. That phase is followed by rapid upward progress as people acquire new skills and  overcome setbacks: a stretch I think of as the sweet spot. At the peak is mastery—when work  becomes easier, but the curve flattens because there is little left to learn. When that happens it’s time  to jump to the bottom of a new S Curve, put in the effort, and experience the thrill of climbing again. 

The S Curve of Learning doesn’t just help people build their careers. It’s also valuable for  managers—a simple visual they can use to start conversations with their reports and make decisions  about their teams. Zoom in, and you can evaluate where an individual is on his or her curve—and  then create a tailored talent-development plan that will maximize the strength of that single thread  and its contribution to the whole cloth. Zoom out, and you can figure out how to weave your team’s S  Curve threads together to create a harmonious tapestry.

Once you understand the S Curve of Learning, you can apply it in a variety of ways in business. This  article discusses three: talent development, succession planning, and team configuration. 

Talent Development 

Human development happens naturally. We do, after all, have growth as our default setting. But  managers don’t want to be entirely at the mercy of nature; they want to proactively develop their  people, and they can. 

The S Curve of Learning offers managers and their teams a common language for discussions about  personal growth and talent development—about people’s progress in their roles and their future with  the organization. When one of your reports says, “I’m at the launch point,” you’ll know that person is  struggling to gain traction. When someone says, “I’m in the sweet spot,” he or she has momentum  and is feeling competent and confident. And when you hear an employee say, “I’m in mastery,” the  message is clear—“I know I’m good at this, but I can’t keep doing it—I need a new challenge.” 

Sumeet Shetty, a development manager in intelligent enterprise solutions at the software maker SAP,  uses the S Curve of Learning adeptly. Based in Bangalore, India, Shetty is an exceptional leader and  coach, recognized for his track record of building high-performance teams. How does he go about it?  

For starters, he has career conversations with every person on his team (currently 35 members). “I  talk to my people about what they want to do now, their purpose in life, and the general direction that  they want their career to go in,” Shetty says. After identifying where someone is on the learning curve,  he says, “I then prepare a very customized personal development plan.” The plan lays out activities  that the team member can do to get closer to his or her ideal career path. Often, Shetty assigns  mentors from within SAP or outside the company, drawing on his personal network, to coach his team  members. Each person’s plan also contains a minimum of two reading recommendations. “One is a  technical reading—something to do with programming and computer science. The second one is  completely different,” says Shetty (who also runs India’s largest professional book club). For example,  he assigned one especially creative employee the Adam Grant book Originals.

Shetty meets with each team member every two weeks. All his reports are assigned to keep a  reflection journal, in which they record what they’ve done, what they’ve learned, and what they see as  the impact of their work on the team and the company. Half of each one-on-one meeting is spent  reviewing the journal, and the other half is devoted to the personal development plan. 

In these conversations, Shetty watches for leadership potential, and he’s always looking for open  roles for the people who have it. A couple of years ago he put a technically focused employee— someone who’d never said he aspired to be a people manager—in charge of a small team. Shetty  told the new manager: “I see that it’s possible. You can learn. And I’m happy to help you.” In a  subsequent one-on-one, the employee reported that his transformation from technologist and  individual contributor to leader was something Shetty had seen in him that he had not seen in himself. 

Shetty views employees not just as occupants of roles the company needs but as dynamos of latent  potential who can take on even bigger tasks in the future. That mindset is common among smart  managers. They recruit candidates who with some investment in training and mentorship can help the  company achieve its long-term goals. 

Consider Brittanie Boyd. A former college athlete, Boyd worked in guest services at the stadium for  the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys before moving to Barclays Center, the arena for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.  It wasn’t as if Boyd went unnoticed there. After a few years at the center she rose to senior manager  in her department. But then Scott O’Neil, who at the time was the CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports &  Entertainment (HBSE), which owns and manages the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New  Jersey Devils, spotted Boyd and recognized that she was a potential star—not merely in guest  services but in the sports-marketing industry. O’Neil could tell that Boyd was nearing the top of her  guest services S Curve, if not perched there already. So he lured her away to HBSE with a promise:  Join us, and I will give you new opportunities to grow. 

“A major component driving my decision to leave Brooklyn and join HBSE was executive leadership  here,” Boyd told me. O’Neil had a reputation for getting rookies off the bench and teaching them to  play new positions. 

Boyd advanced quickly in the HBSE organization, rising from director of guest experience to vice  president of business operations—a serious vertical leap. O’Neil had prepared her for it by setting her  up with another experienced mentor. “Go talk to Donna Daniels,” O’Neil told her. “Do a few projects  for her.” At that time, Daniels was EVP of business operations. Characteristically, Boyd caught on  fast. She began helping Daniels manage key arena partners like suppliers of food and beverages and  merchandise. This took place long before business operations became her de facto job. But O’Neil’s  philosophy was always something along the lines of “Go do the job you want to have, and someday it  will be yours.” 

Keeping people who’ve reached the mastery stage in a role for too long carries risks. An  employee can become complacent or a flight risk. 

Managers like Shetty and O’Neil sometimes spot the right new S Curves for their reports before those  people themselves do. Then it’s time for a push. For Boyd, the push came when O’Neil made her his  chief marketing officer. Boyd felt some entirely understandable trepidation. She knew the role would  come with a steep learning curve of its own, and she’d be starting from the launch point. But O’Neil  saw that even if Boyd didn’t know the specific job terrain, she knew how to grow. His approach is to  give employees the courage to see themselves not as a different job title but as a different person— someone with mastery in a new domain. Learn, leap, repeat.

Of course, not everyone in an organization will have the same vision for an employee. Some might  not automatically support a role change or a neophyte trainee from another department. O’Neil  acknowledges that Boyd’s most recent promotion was met with questions: “She’s the senior vice  president of marketing? How much marketing experience does she have?” His response was “Does it  really matter? She’s smart, and she hires extraordinary people and builds great teams.” 

Succession Planning 

It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about the importance of succession planning. We generally think  of it as preparing a person to step into a role when its current occupant moves on to something new.  It’s a critical task for any organization. 

But that view of succession planning is incomplete. In addition to thinking about “Who next for the  organization?” great managers are always considering “What next for the individual?” Doing this well  involves anticipating which people might move on and when, identifying team members who might  assume this role, and then thinking about those who could backfill that role. 

Shetty says, “I look at my team as a portfolio of S Curves. If your people are on the right S Curve and  you give them the support, the portfolio will neatly organize itself.” 

Managing this portfolio is similar to playing a chess game. Unlike checkers, which are all the same  and move the same way, chess pieces are different and serve unique purposes. A good chess  player, like a good leader, understands the individual moves of the various pieces and can deploy  them in complementary roles. A great leader (or chess player) can coordinate those roles while  thinking several moves ahead. 

But S Curve gurus know that people aren’t as predictable as pawns. People are not objects to be  acted on but free agents, capable of acting for themselves. They can leave our chessboard and go  play for someone else. They don’t have a set of prescribed moves, and they can’t fill the same role  forever. If their managers can’t find a way to steepen their learning curves, they will eventually move  to new organizations and new managers who can. 

Retaining talent demands not only reading the signals but understanding how your employees are  interpreting your reactions. Do they know that you recognize when they’re getting restless and looking  for a new challenge? Is it clear from your conversations that you have the same perception of their  position on their S Curve of Learning and have a growth plan for them? Where a manager thinks  people are on the curve is less relevant than where the employees think they are. 

The S Curve of Learning Framework helps you anticipate these moments, rather than having them  sneak up on you. You can see when the high-contribution sweet spot is about to yield to mastery, and  shortly thereafter, boredom and stagnation. Keeping people who’ve reached the mastery stage in a  role for too long carries risks. An employee can become complacent or a flight risk. And if, as an  organization or team, most of your people are in the sweet spot, humming along, you may be courting  the danger that your entire team could suddenly be in mastery, setting off a wave of departures.  Counter these risks with succession planning for each individual. 

Kara Goldin is the founder and CEO of Hint, which makes an all-natural fruit-infused water. In a little  more than a dozen years, Hint reached $150 million in revenue—the kind of fast-paced growth that  requires a leader to think ahead. One day Goldin asked one of her top employees, “Do you like what  you’re doing?” He replied, “I love what I’m doing.” Goldin’s surprising response? “You should really  hire someone to replace you.” Her reasoning: Despite his happiness, the employee would soon reach 

the mastery point and become bored. Finding and training his successor would provide a fresh  challenge—and allow him to look for another opportunity within the company while he did it. 

The best time for both types of succession planning—individual and organizational—is when things  are going well. If you haven’t prepared someone to assume a role when the person currently in it  moves on, your team will suffer a decline in productivity while you recruit, hire, and onboard a  successor. Goldin advises her employees not to wait for annual reviews but to say constantly to  senior management: “Listen, I love my job; I really enjoy what I’m doing. I feel I’m performing really  well, but what else can I be doing?” In other words they should ask, What is the succession plan for  me? What can I add to my role? What is my next role? 

When Eric Schmidt was the CEO of Google, he hired Patrick Pichette to be its chief financial officer.  (Pichette is now a partner at Inovia Capital and the chairman of the board of Twitter.) Before arriving  at Google, Pichette had already served as the president of operations at Bell Canada and before that  as the vice president and CFO of another Canadian telecom company. At first, Pichette had little  interest in a third tour in operations. “The job was not what I wanted at all,” he told me. 

Schmidt understood the challenge of hiring an employee who was already in mastery on the S Curve  of the CFO role—and that it would mean offering a continuing stream of new learning opportunities. In  selling Pichette on the role, Schmidt acknowledged that Pichette’s previous experience as a CFO was  both a positive and a negative. “After 18 months you’ll be completely bored. I’ll tell you what. I’ll hire  you as CFO, and every time it looks like you are about to lose interest, I’m going to add stuff onto  your plate,” Schmidt promised. Over the next seven years, Pichette’s duties expanded beyond his  CFO role to include people operations, real estate, employee services, Google Fiber (which offers  broadband access), and (the tech giant’s nonprofit arm). 

Building an A Team 

It’s important to support all your team members, regardless of where each person is on the journey to  mastery. Ask yourself, Would a wise investor put all her money into just one or two companies? The  answer is a hard no. Likewise, a wise leader wouldn’t stake a team’s success on just a few  employees in the sweet spot. You want people who have a variety of aptitudes and ambitions, and  you want a balanced portfolio of people at different stages of growth. People in mastery have deep  experience, people at the launch point bring fresh perspectives, and those in the sweet spot have  both the enthusiasm and competence to breathe life into a project. Although every team is different,  many look like a bell curve, with most members in the sweet spot at any given time and a small  percentage of people at the launch point and in mastery. When putting together a team, smart  leaders make sure they have people on all major phases of the curve—what I call a matched team. 

Dan Miller, who has been a manager on the supply chain side of the business at Under Armour for  nearly a decade, believes that a team comprising people at different stages of the curve is better  equipped not only to put out today’s fires but also to fight the new kinds of fires that may develop  tomorrow. He explains: “If I think a process is broken—or there’s an opportunity—I typically bring in  field experts, people who would, on that specific topic or project, be at the mastery level. But then I  also bring in people who are aware of the process but are in the entry-level phase of the project. I do  that to inspire creativity.” 

One of the best ways to generate new ideas and thinking is to give people in mastery a nudge. Miller  says, “When I feel somebody is in that complacency stage or nearing it, that’s when I really start to  push into hyper gear to get them leaping to something.” Challenging an employee in mastery to take  on a new role can have a high ROI. The employee becomes a novice again and commits to an 

unfamiliar learning area. And rapid growth is in the offing when that person traverses the slow phase  of the curve and tips into the sweet spot, unlocking latent innovative capacity. 

When you throw people into challenging jobs that they’re not completely prepared for, you  need to make sure they have a great support team. 

Many leaders I speak with—and perhaps you—sometimes worry that pushing employees at the top of  their S Curves back to the launch point is a risk they can ill afford. People who are excelling in their  roles are by definition valuable in those roles. So how do you help them grow without losing that  value? 

It can be done—as Kraft Heinz demonstrates. The global food giant thinks about the S Curve of  Learning when considering who might be given a stretch role. “We usually like to promote people to  roles that they are not ready for,” says global chief people officer Melissa Werneck. “It cannot be zero  experience, but if you wait for someone to be 100% ready for that specific job, I think the curiosity in  them, the daring to do better every day, won’t necessarily be there.” 

Take Yang Xu. As senior vice president for global treasury, “Yang was at the top of the S Curve with  treasury,” Werneck recalls. “We needed her experience there. I said, ‘Look, we cannot  afford not having Yang in here. But we need to offer Yang a new experience in order for her to have  some butterflies in the stomach.’” Treasury is an external-facing role, and Werneck wanted Xu to  move into global business, taking on a COO-type role where she would need to understand the  internal workings of the vast company—and functions like pricing and manufacturing. And that meant  moving, in the literal sense, to Amsterdam. Xu recalls feeling “tons of butterflies” in her stomach, just  as Werneck intended. But Xu also recognizes these types of reassignments are part of Kraft Heinz’s  distinctive culture. “It’s this unique combination of putting people in before they’re ready and giving  them ownership,” she says. 

When you throw people into challenging jobs that they’re not completely prepared for, you need to  make sure they have a great support team. Werneck says she approached that task by asking, “What  portfolio of S Curves do I need to put in place around Yang so that she is successful in this new role?”  Werneck’s approach became the model for the matched portfolio. “My first conversation with Yang  about M&A was, ‘You need to really build your team. You are very strong on this, this, this, and this.  You need to bring someone that complements you on X, Y, and Z.’” Since Xu was new to the role,  that meant bringing in a few people near the top of their curves to complement her position at the  launch point. 

Pamay Bassey, Kraft Heinz’s chief learning and diversity officer, says building the matched portfolio is  like the game Tetris. Every block—every person—can play a crucial role. But leaders have to be at  the ready to fit these unique individuals into the organizational structure, where they can both find  support and give support to others.

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